Late Night Thoughts on the Death of a Friend

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the summer of 2001, a good friend I depended on for advice suddenly died. I was stunned and shocked for a good 24 hours and then sat down and typed this up. Now 15 years later I pulled it out and corrected some grammar and typos and decided to post it as the distance allows me to read through it.

Submitted: February 28, 2016

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Submitted: February 28, 2016

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Late Night Thoughts on the Death of a Friend by Chris Chabot

 

It was a warm June night.My wife and I were asleep when the phone rang.  She tried to reach for it, but in the darkness, kept missing the handle.  I looked over at the clock: 11:45 p.m.  A call this late is never good news, I thought.

I reached over and found the phone.  It was a good friend of ours, Nora.  We had been to her and her husband Greg’s house for dinner a few weeks earlier.  I could already guess what happened.  He had talked about his Dad having open heart surgery after a heart attack years earlier and how long you have to live when something like that happens.

“Hi.  I’m sorry to bother you so late, but I wanted to let you know before the day ended...”

As she paused, I waited for the final sentence, expecting “Greg’s Father passed away tonight.”  That wasn’t what she said.

“...I wanted to let you know Greg died today.”

I shook my head convinced I had heard wrong.  “What?”  She repeated it.  I sat bolt upright in bed and said “What?” louder.

“Greg, as in your husband,” I queried, waiting for her to say she made a mistake and meant to say his father, but she didn’t.  After mumbling “Oh, my God” a few times, I handed my wife the phone.

I don’t remember what she said, as my body forced me out of bed and began making me pace around muttering “Oh, my God” a few more times in between various curse words of disbelief both in the situation and the universe altering itself so violently and radically.

My wife hung up the phone and then told me what had happened.  Nora had come home from work after picking up the kids at daycare.  She got home to find the house quiet and a full bowl of oatmeal on kitchen table.  She called out his name and kept searching until she found Greg.  He was lying on the bathroom floor, dead.  Paramedics quickly arrived, but he was gone.  They figured he had died that morning while getting ready for breakfast.  He must have felt a sudden horrible heartburn and went to the medicine cabinet for some antacid before dropping to the floor in front of it.

“How old was he?” I asked her.

She thought a minute and then she gasped, “Oh, my God.  He was...”  Realizing she was using past tense and realizing it was correct.

You always hear about “that call” that will someday come with bad news about a parent or family member.  It is always thought of as some fuzzy nebulous thing you don’t really worry about until the phone rings and the news comes.  Then it hits you like a sledge hammer.  Your stomach squeezes to about one fifth its size and it causes you to double over with the pain spreading down the legs and up the back to your shoulders and chin. 

We lay there in bed hugging each other and wondering how on earth that could have happened.  From midnight until five in the morning we lay there.  So many things go through your head.  It fills an entire night.  The first hour you wrestle with disbelief: I had to have heard it all wrong.  It can’t be.  There is no way a 38 year old healthy man who has run in marathons and eats right can be dead from natural causes.  There is no way he can be dead, period!  This must be a dream; a very bad dream.

The second hour you argue with God.  “What were you thinking?  How could you do this?  You took a wonderful, talented, kind, wise man and killed him?  There is no excuse for this!  Absolutely no excuse!  You screwed up big time, big time!”

The third hour you wonder about the implications.  His children were only four and one years old.  They will never remember him or know him.  They will never watch him grow old and will rely on others by word of mouth, which will grow tiresome by the time they are ten or twelve.  I had met people before who had said things like “My Dad died when I was four,” but the real meaning of it never sank in until now. His kids would only know him in old pictures like the tin type portraits you see on the walls of grandparents.  They wouldn’t remember his laugh or his deep soothing voice when giving advice or how his voice went higher when he was enthusiastically telling a story.  My mind kept racing.  What will his wife do?  Where will the funeral be?  Will she move back to Minneapolis?  Will we ever see her or the kids again after she moves?  This is combined with a few arguments directed at God again: “What were you thinking?  How could you do this?”

The fourth hour you think about the last time you saw him.  Two weeks ago at his house having dinner.  He played with our boy and we discussed writing and the latest movies and plans for the next dinner.  We were both stay at home Daddies and had been planning to have regular get togethers in a nearby park.  We talked about future trips to the aquarium and zoo when my boy was old enough to join his little ones.

“I think I have the last picture taken of all of them,” I said.  It was a picture of Greg and Nora and their two kids taken a month earlier on a ferry to a wedding on Catalina Island.  They were smiling and posed so nicely, it looked like I had directed them.  They were in the first two seats, with nothing in front so I could get a clear perfect shot.  The little ones on each side, the four year old peering out from the second row smiling while the one year old was standing in her seat looking straight-faced at the camera.  Nora was sitting in front smiling while Greg was behind and next to her standing and half-smiling.  All four were looking at the camera.  It wasn’t planned.  I just stood up and told them to look at me and snapped it.  With the red seats, it looked like a great cover for a Christmas card and I emailed it to them.  They sent it to family and friends and thanked me since they hadn’t had a picture of all of them to send in quite a while.  I had no idea of how important that shot could be.

“No!  Wait,” my wife said, “We took some pictures two weeks ago at dinner.  I took some of Greg and my boy playing.  It’s still in the camera.”  I was stunned.  How can someone die when there is still film of them in the camera?  When you get the word of someone dying, your first thought is supposed to be “Wow.  I last saw them two years ago at a gathering in...”  Not so recent there is still film of them in the camera.  In some countries, they don’t let you take their picture for fear they are stealing your soul and maybe this picture was a reverse - preserving something of his soul forever.

By now, it was five in the morning.  Eight on the east coast and we figured at least one friend was awake so we called, but only got an answering machine.  We left a message saying we had some sad news and to call back.  We waited until six when we knew a lot of their friends would be up and getting ready for work on the west coast and started calling - getting just answering machines and leaving the same message: “We have some sad news we wanted to share with you.  Could you please call us back?”  We didn’t think about the message we had left until the first panicked person called back.  They thought we had bad news about our son who had undergone open heart surgery just five months earlier, but was doing fine.

As we answered each call and told people, the response was the same.  Relief that it wasn’t about our son followed by devastation that it was Greg who had died. It was like one of your own family members.  An old friend from Florida called back first and was shocked.  She kept asking questions loud enough that I could hear her through the ear piece.  I could tell from her voice that as soon as she hung up the phone, she would nearly collapse.

Next we got hold of Doug who mumbled something in disbelief and shock and got off the phone quickly, prompting his wife Carol to call back to ask more questions.  She said Doug had hung up the phone, said Greg was dead, and walked over to give his four kids breakfast.  Doug was in shock and disbelief just like us. 

The next call was from my sister, Susan.  She had called back shaking, convinced it was either our son or our neighbor who was in the hospital awaiting a heart-liver transplant.  I said no and filled her in.  Silence followed crying and disbelief.  She was a teacher and now she had to go to school to try and teach knowing all this.  She was trying to compose herself as we talked a bit.  My wife continued her conversation with Doug’s wife on her cell phone while I talked to Susan on our home phone.

Next came Tarik, another close friend of Greg.  His wife answered the phone sleepily.  I began to tell her what had happened and she woke up fast. 

“What?” she yelled as I filled her in.  She yelled into the bathroom as I heard a hair dryer turning off, “Tarik!  Get on the phone!  It’s Chris!  Greg is dead!  Nora’s Greg!”

“What?” I heard a skeptical voice yell.  He grabbed the phone and said “Hello?”  I proceeded to tell him the same story - Nora driving home from work, finding Greg on the floor.  Each sentence elicited a blast of air from him. 

“I feel sick.” he moaned, “I feel like my stomach just collapsed.” and I could hear it happening over the phone.  He moaned a few times and said he would talk to me later.  I hung up the phone and took a minute to collect my breath.

I got a hold of my cousin who was a writer in Milwaukee. The two had met several times and talked about writing and when talking with one, I always brought up the other and so the two knew all about each other.  He gasped in shock and said he had only met him a few times, but felt like he had lost a friend.  We talked a few minutes and then I told him I had one more call to make.

I had to call my ex-roommate and closest friend, Bill, who was also a writer.  Like Greg, he had had a big script sale years earlier and then struggled.  His script was made and aired on TV and we thought he was on his way up, but it wasn’t to be.  Greg’s script had been a big budget script targeted for a block buster action movie, but it died in development when several parties fought over it and the old “too many cooks spoil the broth” had leveled the project.  Greg was frustrated over the years that had passed, but was working on a new script he felt could turn things around.  Bill was in the same boat and was close to finishing his script as well.  Both had read each other’s scripts and given notes and given talks to inspire each other.  As a writer who wasn’t selling well, the talks sure worked on me.  I was fired up each time I talked to Greg about writing.

I eagerly awaited his reading of my scripts and his notes on them.  A few times he would call me at nine at night saying he had just finished the script and he had a few pages of notes to go over.  Three hours later, I would ask, “Err.... how many notes did you take?”

“Just four pages”, he said. 

“Oh.  Good.  How far are you?” I asked, relieved.

“About half way through.”

I was so admiring of his writing ability, that I took each suggestion of his to heart and accepted it like gospel.  It made me a better writer and his advice on life made me a better person. I remember reading a script of his and was hesitant to give him notes, knowing mine would not be up to the standard of his, but there he was, quietly scribbling down all that I was saying about his story and characters and peppering me with more questions.  I actually felt honored that he was taking my suggestions seriously.

Bill took it as hard as I did, except he was at work, trapped at his desk with no bedroom or office to run into and curse and yell out loud.  He staggered through some words and said he had to go as other calls were coming in.  He hung up while trying to get some air.  It was ten hours later and I was still trying to deal with the news.

I was done with the calls.  My wife left for work.  “Be alive when I get home,” she said as she left.  I was left with the torment of my own thoughts as I sat feeding my little boy his bottle.  I thought about how I had first met him and liked him right off the spot.  He was an incredible listener.  I had noticed when he offered advice, he thought about it a while and then gave you several possibilities including the one that seemed the best solution.

I also found myself thinking if I had skipped that small party, I might not have met him and I would not be reeling right now from this horrible news.  It would just be second hand news from someone telling me a friend had died and reminding us of some dinner party he was at.  I would have missed this day and all its pain, but I would have missed the ten years of wonderful conversations and advice I had received.  He was so good at advice - useful advice and pieces of information that made you feel so much better about your situation.  After talking to him, it felt like your problem had a solution and there was now a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I thought about all this, I could hear out the window, a referee’s whistle and kids shouting and laughing.  My boy was drinking his milk, but had a confused look on his face as he kept his eyes on me.  He knew there was something wrong, but was too young to talk about it.  I smiled at him and kissed him on the forehead, but he still could tell something had happened.  Somewhere far away, I could hear school kids playing.  Somewhere far away, life was going on.  Here, it had stopped.

I tried to lie down, but the phone began ringing.  Each ring made me jump.  My folks called, saddened by the news and offering sympathy.  Another sister, who had met them several times and was coming out in two weeks and was looking forward to seeing them again.  Doug’s wife Carol called with suggestions on what we could do.  My cousin asked how I was feeling and we talked of how you deal with this yourself and if anyone our age has plans for their death.  If my wife died, would I know who to call, where would I hold the services?  If both of us died, where would our boy go?  Where would we be buried?  Where would I be buried if it was just me?  Questions that never really pop into your head and certainly never get pondered now being put on the front burner - so close it was causing third degree burns inside me.  I had not wanted to think about this.

We had reached the age where you start hearing bad news about people’s parents.  We had been expecting things like that.  Bill had lost his mother to a heart attack a few years earlier.  Another’s father had died of cancer a year later.  My wife’s grandfather died from a heart attack.  Both of our grandparents had died of old age while in nursing homes, but nothing like this.  It was supposed to be the generations above, not ours - especially not one without any history of heart trouble or weight problems or battles with drugs or greasy fried foods.  This just didn’t happen in our eyes.  Was this some strange aberration like a two headed beast or was this a warning shot across the bow?

Death had never come this close before.  It swept by leaving such a gust of wind that I had to repeatedly check on my little boy and even my two cats and my dog to make sure that death wasn’t coming back to steal anyone else.  When my dog started panting underneath the bed during the night, I bolted upright again, fearing another theft.  Like when a break-in has been committed and you fear the burglar returning, despite all the police and yellow tape around.

More people called me back.  Bill to say how terrible this day was.  He was having a hard time staying at work.  Susan had gone to her class with pictures of Greg.  She talked about him and passed the pictures around and told them what he was like and then went home early saying she just couldn’t take the day any more.  Tarik and I talked about Greg at the wedding in Catalina.  It was Tarik’s wedding we had gone to.  He said Doug had called him.  We talked for 40 minutes before he said “I have to go.  Your wife is on the other line.”  15 minutes later she called me to say everyone was calling everyone.  It seemed talking made each of us feel better.  It certainly made me feel better.

She said she had briefly talked to Nora.  There was nothing definite yet, but there would probably be a memorial service here and then a service back in Minneapolis so both friends and family could have something.

Afterwards, I thought about that and was saddened.  I was hoping someone from Los Angeles would be at his funeral in Minneapolis.  I had not met his family or friends from there and I realized that the folks there would not know of his life out here.  I was afraid that their funeral would cover his growing up in Minnesota followed by his 20 years in Los Angeles like he had been in some kind of vacuum tube and then his death.  They would know nothing about his life out here and what it had been like.

I knew it well because I realized it was my life story as well and if I were to die, my own group back in Michigan would go through the same thing.  He grew up in this town, went off to who knows where, did who knows what.  We heard something about a script, but we never saw any movie and so we have no idea what that meant and then he died and came back here.

I couldn’t let that be the end of it.  They should know the wonderful qualities he brought out here and the other wonderful ones he had developed here.  He brought with him the amazing capability of solving problems and looking at them with a judicial eye.  He brought with him the small town Midwest traits known so well - kindness, patience, deliberation, honesty, but he developed such a great knowledge and maturity out here. 

He had gone from a young man wet behind the ears eager to break into the film industry through writing to a full time Daddy.  It was the same arduous painful journey I had been taking right behind him.  It was wonderful to see him with his little boy in the library looking for books and videos.  I had spotted them several times at our library and when I stopped and talked to them his little boy would excitedly tell me how they had gone to the zoo or aquarium and they were now getting a book on sharks or reptiles.

They had to know that back in Minneapolis.  They had to know he wasn’t in some vacuum tube.  He was struggling and going through the triumphs and frustrations so many out here in this industry go through.  It always seemed like he was just nearing the finish line to success with his writing.  The brass ring was always zooming in close for a big prize-winning grab and then flitting away like a batter wildly missing a cheating spit ball.  I understood it and went through it with him - each of us comparing our ups and downs, trying to figure out the next path so we would finally grab that ring and hear the bells and whistles blast.  Through it all he kept his spirits up and kept his pep talks going that could make my sagging spirits soar as I left his place eager to take up battle again.

By the end of the day, everything had so bottled up inside me.  I walked in to the bathroom and looked into the mirror.  “Why?” I wanted to scream at the Universe.  “Why must everything I write now come from pain?”  I remembered the quote Bobby Kennedy stood by when dealing with his brother John’s death.  It was the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s quote: “pain, which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” 

I now understood it, but I didn’t want to.  I certainly didn’t think it was worth it.  Take back Greg’s death and make him alive and well and my friend again.  Let me be selling oranges near the freeway or opening the doors in a uniform at some hotel for a living, just take it all back.  It was not worth it.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, praying I could somehow purge the pain stuck inside me.  I wanted to ask Greg for advice.  I wanted to hear another wonderful pep talk that would make me shine and get ready to battle, but he wasn’t around.  I had been cheated out of a good 40 years of friendship and advice.


© Copyright 2020 Chabot1977. All rights reserved.

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